ROCK MUSIC Pearl Jam's still fighting to make a difference
Universal lyrics and punk attitude inspire the band.
By JOHN PATRICK GATTA
Rock 'n' roll has always been about rebellion -- from Elvis' swiveling hips to the mayhem at the Mooondog Coronation Ball, from the long hair of the Beatles to the Summer of Love, from the brazen sexuality of hard rock to the nonconformity of punk rock.
Pearl Jam, which will play concerts in Cleveland and Pittsburgh this week, is just following the unwritten rules.
A run through the band's seven studio albums and a perusal of a timeline that its record company provided reveals that the quintet mutated its sound as a defiant strike for artistic integrity while simultaneously acting as a conduit for social change and causes.
With much support by MTV, which aired its two anthem-like singles ("Even Flow," "Alive") as well as an "Unplugged" program, Pearl Jam's debut, "Ten," finally broke through to the masses. Its early spot during the 1992 Lollapalooza Festival cemented its live reputation. At the Blossom Music Center date, the band's performance plus a heavy rainstorm led to lawn ticket holders rushing for a spot in the dry pavilion, and to get a little closer to their new favorite band.
Later in the year, the band made the first of many appearances at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit concerts, which aids a school for children with severe speech and physical disabilities.
At that time, Pearl Jam was pigeonholed within Seattle's grunge scene. While fellow Seattle acts Nirvana, Mudhoney and others took their cues from punk rock, Pearl Jam infused its music from the classic rock structures of the '70s with a youthful energy and, occasionally, punk attitude.
The pressure of being hailed as the representatives of the grunge movement never sat well with band members. And that resistance came out musically on its third album, "Vitalogy," a desire to reinvent the group's sound for its own self-preservation. Powerhouse riffs that were custom-built for the size of an arena were scaled down to something akin to garage rock minus the unabashed raw power.
The band's subsequent releases may not have always been successful in totality but they displayed a much stronger individualistic identity and commitment to artistic integrity.
It was at this time that Pearl Jam assumed the punk rock mentality full force by taking on the mighty Ticketmaster behemoth. The attempt to use its popularity as leverage ultimately failed when the band members found that a personal appearance in front of Congress is no match for lobbyists working behind the scenes. This led to a haphazard slate of concert dates that did not match previous excursions in the U.S.
Whether it was a collective decision to work within the system or resignation that they couldn't beat it, Pearl Jam resumed massive touring activities with the release of 1998's "Yield." The album brought back the stripped down maneuvers of "Vitalogy" and even scored a radio-friendly track with the Zeppelinesque "Given to Fly."
Return to area
That summer, Pearl Jam finally made it to this area again with a date at Star Lake Amphitheatre, now Post-Gazette Pavilion. The group performed at the venue two years later.
Its appearance Friday will mark a return to Cleveland following a decade-long absence. The next night, it plays Mellon Arena.
Its current album, "Riot Act," released last November, weaves through the musical shades of darkness and light that the band has been honing from its inception. The lyrics ruminate on love (vocalist Eddie Vedder's marriage broke up) and the politics of life (Vedder supported and played benefits for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign) in a manner that personalizes and proclaims its own reading of the riot act to the haves of society.
Vedder's theatrical take on the anti-President Bush number, "Bushleaguer," made headlines when the band kicked off the current tour in Denver. It was reported that "dozens" left the arena. It wasn't reported that it was played as part of an encore when fans typically leave in order to avoid post-concert traffic.
The group that was so beloved in the early '90s disintegrated only to return as the more direct, streamlined and in-your-face unit that champions the fragile individual against impenetrable institutions.
And like all rebels, there is a soft spot, a vulnerable side. In Pearl Jam's case, it's one that instills a sense of hope that some day those who feel defeated will one day gain their share. As Vedder sings on "Thumbing My Way" off of "Riot Act," "no matter how cold the winter, there's a springtime ahead."